Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Why can't deacons confer Anointing of the Sick?

Deacons can baptize and they can witness marriages, they can even distribute communion as an ordinary minister, and yet the Church does not allow deacons (nor any who are not priests) to confer the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
A brief consideration of this question – Why can’t a deacon confer Anointing of the Sick? – will teach us a great deal about this sacrament.

None but the priests can confer Anointing of the Sick
That only priests (including bishops) can confer the sacrament of Anointing is the clear teaching of the Catholic Church.
“Only priests (bishops and presbyters) are ministers of the Anointing of the Sick.” (CCC 1516)
 “Every priest, but only a priest, can validly administer the anointing of the sick.” (Code of Canon Law 1003.1)
 “All priests, and only priests, validly administer the anointing of the sick.” (Eastern Code of Canon Law 739.1)
“Further, it is also indicated there [James 5:14] that the proper ministers of this sacrament are the presbyters of the Church, under which name in that place are to be understood not the elders by age or the foremost in rank among the people, but either bishops or priests duly ordained by them with the imposition of the hands of the priesthood [1 Timothy 4:14].” (Trent, Session XIV)
That priests and only priests can confer this sacrament is clearly taught in Sacred Scripture: Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14)
This is not the type of teaching which can change. The minister of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick has been and will always be priests and only priests (including, of course, bishops). Still, we ask, Why is it so?
Anointing of the Sick forgives sin, even mortal sin
Anointing of the Sick is principally directed to spiritual healing. But what is the spiritual healing which this sacrament effects? St. James tells us that it forgives sin, and the Council of Trent teaches dogmatically that both mortal and venial sins are forgiven through this sacrament. However, the forgiveness of sin per se is not the principal effect of this sacrament, but is more of a side-effect. This is why St. James does not say simply, “Anoint the sick person and his sins will be forgiven”, but, if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him. (5:15)
The sacrament given for the forgiveness of actual sins is Reconciliation or Confession. For the forgiveness of mortal and venial sin, Penance is the proper sacrament. This is why the Church encourages the faithful to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation in preparation for Anointing. Further, if a man were to attempt to receive Anointing of the Sick as a way of having his sins forgiven while despising and refusing Confession, the Anointing would have no effect in him except his condemnation. Again: Even though Anointing does forgive sin (and even mortal sin, but not original sin), if a man attempts to use this sacrament as a way of avoiding Confession, he condemns himself, and the Anointing becomes for him a marking unto judgment rather than a balm of forgiveness.
Anointing of the Sick is for the remission of sins, that is, of the remnants of sin
Still, Anointing of the Sick is for spiritual healing and is directed to the forgiveness of sins – however, it is not principally for the forgiveness of sin as to the guilt of sin (this is what Confession is for), but rather as to the “remnants” or “vestiges” of sin.
Actual sin weakens the will and burdens the soul. When a person begins to be in danger of death, he has need of a spiritual healing and strengthening so that he might be well prepared to meet his Lord in the particular judgment. Most especially, the sacrament of Anointing gives a special grace to strengthen the sick person “against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death.” (CCC 1520)
As the sacrament of Anointing removes all the “remnants” of sin (that perduring weakness of the will which remains even after sin has been forgiven), so too does it wash away any sin which it finds still staining the soul.
Additionally, if it is conducive to the spiritual healing of the individual, the sacrament may effect a physical healing as well.
Why only priests can anoint: Confession and Anointing
Now, seeing that Anointing is directed to the forgiveness of sins (that is, of the remnants of sin) and is truly a completion of the sacrament of Penance, it is becomes clear that only priests can confer this sacrament.
While it is true that deacons can baptize, we do not say that they can forgive sins. Indeed, the sacrament of baptism does forgive all sin (both original and actual sin), but it is not so much through the power of the minister as through the sanctifying power of regeneration through water and the Holy Spirit. Thus, we do not say that a priest or deacon or lay person “forgave that baby’s sins” when he baptized him – Baptism is not given through the “power of the keys”.
Hence, since Anointing is the completion of the sacrament of Penance (especially as to the effect of the two sacraments), and because Anointing is directed principally to spiritual healing through the remission of the remnants of sin, only those who have the power to absolve from sin through the sacrament of Reconciliation are able to confer Anointing of the Sick.
Since the “power of the keys” was entrusted only to the priests (and bishops), only these can confer Penance and Anointing. Because neither deacons nor the laity can hear confessions, neither can they confer Anointing of the Sick.
On the profound confusion regarding this sacrament in the Church today
1) Danger of death: First, there are many in the Church who do not realize that Anointing of the Sick can only be given to those who have begun to be in a real danger of death [for more on this, see our earlier article - here]. Surely, Anointing is not only for those who are on their death bed, but neither is it for those who do not suffer from a serious illness or from old age such that they have at least begun to be in danger of death. If Anointing is divorced from the notion of a spiritual healing in preparation for death and the particular judgment, then it will very likely be thought of as being principally for physical, emotional, and psychological healing.
I am convinced that this error – separating Anointing from danger of death – is the font of all the modern confusion about this sacrament. [n.b. Though many priests and even bishops are confused on this point, the Church still teaches that Anointing is only to be given to those who have begun to be in danger of death from sickness or old age (cf. CCC 1514, Code of Canon Law 1004.1, Eastern Code of Canon Law 738)]
2) Not principally about physical healing: Many in the Church today divorce Anointing of the Sick from Penance and speak as though this sacrament is not directed principally to the remission of the remnants of sin in preparation for a holy death. Such persons make the sacrament to be more about physical healing (including psychological comfort) than about spiritual healing (which is the forgiveness of sin and of the remnants of sin). Thus, it is no surprise that so many people in the Church do not understand why this sacrament can only be conferred by priests and bishops. Because they do not realize the close connection between Confession and Anointing, they do not realize that Anointing is sacramentally unintelligible if not seen as the completion of the sacrament of Penance.
3) Why young children cannot receive Anointing: From this second error, a third follows – people begin to think that the Church could (or, even, should) confer Anointing on young children below the age of reason. But, in truth, these youngsters have no need of the sacrament since they have not committed any sins. If Anointing were primarily about physical healing, then the Church would give the sacrament to young children (and there would be no clear reason why the sacrament couldn’t be given by deacons or even the laity). However, Anointing is primarily about spiritual healing gained through the remission of the remnants of actual sin. And, since young children below the age of reason have not yet committed any actual sins, they cannot receive Anointing of the Sick (they have no need of it, just as they have no need of Reconciliation). [for more on this, see our earlier article - here]


Anonymous said...

Fr. Ryan, can you explain why the Church asks that those who are anointed confess mortal sins at a later time? And what if they fail to? Are those mortal sins efficaciously forgiven?

Boethius said...

Great article Father. Quick question, Do you have a reference for Trent teaching that Extreme Unction remits Mortal sins?

It seems like the Catechism of Trent says the opposite:

"Pastors, therefore, should teach that by this Sacrament is imparted grace that remits sins, and especially lighter, or as they are commonly called, venial sins; for mortal sins are removed by the Sacrament of Penance. Extreme Unction was not instituted primarily for the remission of grave offences; only Baptism and Penance accomplish this directly."

Fr. Savio said...

I've also heard it speculated - quite rightly, to my mind - that the reason only a priest can anoint is because only a priest can make present the sacrifice of the Cross as sacrifice. He makes present the sacrifice of Calvary on the altar in the Eucharist, makes present the sacrifice of Calvary in the death of perfect contrition in Confession, and makes present the sacrifice of Calvary actually in the suffering person themselves by transforming their suffering into the Paschal suffering of Christ. The sacrament of Anointing is a consecration (thus why oil is used) that through the power of the Spirit allows the suffering person to be offered in union with the sacrifice of Christ, and prepares the body of that person for final resurrection. ("May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.") That is why only a priest can do it - it is a consecratory sacrifice and presence of the Paschal Mystery. Its connection to the Cross and Resurrection of Christ also explains why danger of death is necessary for liceity.

Unknown said...

Fr. Ryan:

I volunteer regularly in a hospital where the chaplain administers Anointing of the Sick on a monthly basis to patients and those in attendance at that Mass.

I have been told that Anointing is to be given only once for a particular illness/injury. Somewhat like Confirmation. Is this true? Is it wrong to receive it more than once?

I am 69 and have high blood pressure, heart problems, etc. but am not particularly in danger of immediate death.

Is the sacrament meant for this kind of illness?

If another illness (eg. cancer) should strike me, would it be proper to receive the sacrament again?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Ray from MN,
A man can receive anointing more than once, even for the same illness.
If the sickness gets significantly worse, then the man should be anointed again (together with confession, if possible).

So, Anointing is more like Confession than like Confirmation or Baptism.

As far as your particular situation ... I would definitely say that heart problems (especially for a 69 year old with high blood pressure) is a good reason to request Anointing of the Sick.
This could then be repeated if the condition gets significantly worse. (or, as you say, if you were to get another illness)

As far as the practice of "once-per-month" ... this doesn't seem very pastoral to me ... I believe that people should be dealt with on a more individual basis, rather than just a general one-size-fits-all approach.
For some, once a month would be far too often ... for others (in certain cases) it would not be often enough.

However, at a hospital, the chaplain might be thinking that there are different people there each month.
Only those who are seriously ill should be Anointed.

Peace and blessings! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Savio,
St. Thomas Aquinas also makes this connection ... only specifying more the idea of hierarchical authority (since he has power over Christ's mystical Body through consecrating his true Body).

Thanks for the insight! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

While it is true that Confession is the primary means of forgiving all actual sins (including both mortal and venial sins), Anointing does this as well.
Because it is impossible that the "remnants" of actual sin should be washed away while the guilt remain.

Still, if the person is conscious of mortal sin and is able to confess, then he must confess before receiving Anointing ... and this is what the Catechism of Trent means to say.

I hope it is clearer now ... this was a disputed point before Trent, but is now settled. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

please use a name or pseudonym in the future.

Great question!
If a person has mortal sin and yet needs to be anointed and cannot confess (for example, he is unconscious), then he must confess as soon as possible ... but he is already forgiven through the Anointing (with the presumption of the desire to confess).

So, if a person tries to use Anointing as a way of getting out of going to confession ... they are not forgiven and they receive Anointing in a sacrilegious way.
And, generally, a person would confess any mortal sins before receiving Anointing (excepting in extreme cases -- and then the Anointing itself forgives, but the person must confess later, if able).

Finally, if the person truly does desire to confess the mortal sin later - and so receives the Anointing in good faith - but then forgets those mortal sins and never confesses them, there is no problem. At the time of the Anointing he was in good faith and so the sins are forgiven ... and, if he is able to remember them at some point, then it must confess them ... but he won't be condemned for an honest mistake.
The point is that what matters is the disposition of the person AT THE TIME OF THE ANOINTING ... if he is in good faith then (even if he were to change to bad later), the sacrament of Anointing forgives his mortal sin immediately -- but then it is a mortal sin to intentionally avoid confessing mortal sins forgiven through an emergency Anointing.

Well ... I hope all that is clear! :-)

Deacon Tony said...

Father Ryan,

Not being able to read what it says in James in the original language, the question arises did Jesus use the same language when he told the paralyzed man that his sins were forgiven

Julio Vivas said...

Is the Anointing of the Sick and the Elderly similar to the Extreme Anointing in its benefits and graces to the receiver?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Deacon Tony,
I am going to be writing about the healing of the paralytic later this week ... since it is the sunday gospel.

Briefly, the language is different, but this is definitely a place where Jesus taught us about Anointing and forgiveness of sins.

Great connection! +

Unknown said...

Thank you, Father.

Indeed, there generally are different people at most Anointings, but some do repeat.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Julio Vivas,
If by "Extreme Anointing" you me "Extreme Unction" ... then, yes, Anointing of the Sick is the same thing.

Please feel free to write in Spanish, if it would help to make it clearer.

Peace! +

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I believe it was Cyprian who taught (and I am certain commissioned) Deacons had the power to hear confessions and grant absolution in danger of immediate death when no priest (bishop) could be found.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

St. Thomas Aquinas believed that even lay persons could hear confessions if no priests (nor even deacons) could be found.

However, it is certain (as a matter of faith) that only priests can grant absolution.

Thus, whatever St Cyprian may have taught ... a deacon does not have the power to grant absolution (not even in danger of death) ... but he can and should hear the confession if a priest is not available ... then the "confession" is a sacramental.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Father, totally agree. I just thought Cyprian's arguments were interesting albeit flawed.


Quid est Veritas? said...

Father, I know this is an odd question, but what about somebody who has just died (not yet cold). Could he be given Extreme Unction? I ask because I remember reading somewhere that after a plane crash, several priests from the nearby church came and gave Extreme Unction to as many people as possible.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

If there is a real doubt as to whether a person is alive or dead, then the priest should anoint.
In practice, this generally means that up to 30 minutes or so after presumed time of death, anointing can and should be given (excepting special cases where death is very clear).

Doctors can be wrong, and merely checking for a pulse is not totally accurate ... however, something like a study of brain activity (as they do with organ donors) is much more accurate.

Greg said...

Since Anointing of the Sick cannot be given to those who are not sick and are not in danger of death, can it be given to those who are NOT sick yet are still in danger of death (e.g, a criminal awaiting execution)?


Father S. said...

@ Father,

I have noticed that there are those who are wont to say that, while Deacons cannot administer this Sacrament by law, they can administer by Sacramental authority. In other words, there are those who assert that the Church could somehow allow deacons to administer this Sacrament. Would you like to address why this is an untenable position?

Kind Regards,
Father S.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

No, Anointing of the Sick cannot be given to a criminal awaiting execution ... it is only for those who are both dying and are sick (or elderly).
... I suppose that, after the poison has been inject (for example), he could receive Anointing in those last seconds ...

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Father S,
To such I would respond that the Church lacks the "power of excellence", that is the power to make new sacraments or to change the essence of the sacraments.

While she can surely change details (like which words are used in Anointing), she cannot change the essence (like what the essential meaning of the words must be).

So also, since our Lord himself (through St. James) established that only priest confer Anointing, the Church most certainly cannot change this.

I believe further that the article above shows the internal logic of this sacrament in its connection with reconciliation ... and, since deacons cannot possibly give sacramental absolution, neither can they give Anointing.

Fr. John said...

Fr. Erlenbush (Catholics address clergy by last name, right?),

Interesting post. As an Orthodox priest, I had always assumed that our theology was identical in terms of this particular sacrament, although, of course, the Rites and associated prayers would be different.

However, it seems from some of what you say that not just the prayers but some of the theology is different as well.

We do not restrict unction to those in danger of death and we give it to children as well as adults.

Also, although deacons have no part in the consecration of the Unction oil, when a large number of people are being anointed, they can help distribute it.

In these particular areas of difference, do the Eastern Catholics follow the theology that you've laid out here or do they practice and teach what we do?

In Christ,
Fr. John

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. John,
The Canon Law of the Eastern Catholic Church is the same as the West.

I suspect, however, that the difference between the Orthodox and Catholic theology is deeper ... involving the distinction between sacrament and sacramental.

Anonymous said...

At this time when there is such a shortage of priests and in special circumstances such as alzheimer patients it would be a great help if lay chaplains could administer the Sacramet of the Sick and also another translation of St. James Gospel is " If anyone of you is in trouble, they should pray; If one of you is ill, they should send for the elders of the church they must anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over you." If the church insists on priests only administering this Sacrament many people will die without this Sacrament again the faithful will suffer!!!
Mgt Hill Chaplain

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Mgt Hill Chaplain,
The simple fact is that the Church does not have the authority to create or change sacraments ... Christ instituted the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, just as he instituted Confession ... and if only priests can absolve sin through the sacrament of confession, then only priests can give Anointing.

The answer is not to create our own church and sacraments (as you would have us do), but rather to pray for more priests and to encourage young men to consider the priesthood.

This is my point ... it is not the Church who insists on priests only, but Christ himself ... I would ask you to re-read the article before commenting again ... you will see better the whole logic of this sacrament.

Catholicus said...

It was unfortunate, perhpas, that the Canon Law changed to remove the word "of death" so that it now says "in danger". I think "of death" is still implied, but the act of removing it does suggest a broadening. That said, it used to be too restrictive. A priest who was chaplain to a prison which carried out executions by hanging told me that he could't annoint until the body dropped and was swinging, and the bag placed over the person's head had a hole cut in the forehead for this very purpose.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

A priest cannot administer anointing to a man who is on death row unless he is in danger of death from a sickness.

Hence, it is true, a priest cannot anoint a healthy man who is about to be executed ... however, he would give him confession and Viaticum.

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